6 publishers share how they follow audiences from platform to platform

By Shelley Seale

INMA

Austin, Texas, United States

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By Brie Logsdon

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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By Paula Felps

INMA

Nashville, Tennessee, United States

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The days of a news media company relying on a single platform such as print are long gone. To remain viable, relevant, and competitive in the current environment, publishers must embrace multiple media forms and seek out innovative ways to deliver their messaging.

In the seventh of nine modules, The New York Times, Bonnier, Rede Gazeta, Globe and Mail, Alma Media, and Advance Local shared their efforts to reach audiences through varied content initiatives during seven-minute Brainsnacks sessions at INMA’s Virtual World Congress on Friday. 

The New York Times and print

The New York Times believes print has a future if publishers are clear-eyed about its strengths in a multi-media environment. Michael Greenspon, global head of licensing and print innovation, shared successful examples from The Times ecosystem such as a special section for kids, a crossword puzzle, a foldable version of the Constitution, and more. 

The key to print’s success is to surprise and delight readers. 

The New York Times' "At Home" print section debuted in late April to respond to the pandemic.
The New York Times' "At Home" print section debuted in late April to respond to the pandemic.

At the Times, it has always been about putting the readers first, and still is. “Our mission is to seek truth and help people understand the world using our original, expert reporting to bring information to the public,” Greenspon said.

One way The Times has innovated in print during the current crisis is with the introduction of the “At Home” stand-alone print section on April 26. This is an extension of the “At Home” Web section that began in March. The section is filled with advice and activities to help readers survive in the home isolation times.

The “At Home” section has replaced sports and travel sections, which have temporarily moved into other sections due to their lack of interest and activity right now.

The Times also published an e-book, called Answers To Your Coronavirus Questions, which pulled together some of its most informative articles about the coronavirus.

“We’ve also been doubling down on some of the old reliables,” Greenspon said. These include children’s sections and a puzzle section. “Turns out, adults also need to be entertained. This is usually published in December for people to do over the holiday break, but we figured people could use that break now.”

Bonnier and video

“More and more newspapers around the world are producing video,” said Thomas Mattsson, senior advisor at Bonnier News. “This was unheard of back in 2010 … but today, newspapers around the world are grabbing the opportunity.”

Bonnier titles have a focus on video content to reach younger audiences.
Bonnier titles have a focus on video content to reach younger audiences.

A decade ago, Mattsson spoke at the INMA World Congress and encouraged publishers to diversify the channels they used. But he did not imagine what a powerful role video would play.

Expressen built its first TV studio in 2005. Today, it has four studios and is the exclusive affiliate to CNN in Sweden.

“If we are to attract a generation of news consumers who have grown up with YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, then we must also provide more relevant video,” Mattsson said. “More and more, newspapers are using video to convert viewers into subscribers, offering content such as … youth sports, high-end sports, livestreams, documentaries, engaging content.”

Bonnier has  found video is not only a compelling way to attract readers, but it also offers revenue through pre-roll and sponsorship bumpers.

“A lot of people think this is only for big newspapers, but that’s not true,” he said, showing an example of video content from a local paper with a circulation of only 15,000. “Even free newspapers are doing video content.”

Rede Gazeta and digital

As a small publisher in Southeastern Brazil, Rede Gazeta wanted to build a first-rate digital publishing portfolio that would deliver “the highest standard of journalism for a small-scale local audience.” Andre Furlanetto, marketing and digital development director, said the company “wanted to be world-class both in terms of journalism and in product.”

The challenge was to be able to match those high ambitions while working with limited resources.

The move to a digital focus with printed weekend edition has increased KPIs across the board.
The move to a digital focus with printed weekend edition has increased KPIs across the board.

In October of 2019, the company moved from being a daily print publication to producing a digital edition seven days a week and a print edition on the weekend. Although the company was inspired by The Washington Post’s CMS, that was out of its budget, so the publisher took an innovative approach: It partnered with another publisher and built two identical sites, one for each of them, which allowed them to share costs and still get the features they felt were most important.

“We did a lot of work with AMP for advertising, and we’re one of just a handful of publishers in Brazil that is part of the Ad Scale Group with Google,” Furlanetto  said. “We’re the smallest, but we were able to … improve the visibility of our ads and that gave a lot of upside to our advertising business.”

Teams also began working with voice assistance technology so they could leverage audio. At the same time, they did a lot of work on improving their newsletters and redesigning newsroom workflow.

Rede Gazeta has have seen improvements in all KPIs.

“The COVID effect on our audience numbers is that we have been growing steadily and seeing [a lot of] traction on all the action we took,” he said. “Subscriptions are improving steadily.”

The Globe and Mail and AI

For more than a year, more than 99% of decisions of where to promote content on The Globe and Mail’s Web site have been made by an AI system called Sophi, Gordon Edall, managing director of Globe Labs, said. Edall shared a pre-COVID look at the impact Sophi has had on the Web site without changing any other aspect of the workflow.

“Journalists didn’t do anything different at all,” Edall said. “They just did their jobs.”

The Globe and Mail's Sophi system has increased reader engagement and subscriber acquisitions.
The Globe and Mail's Sophi system has increased reader engagement and subscriber acquisitions.

Sophi identifies the best places to put content by processing hundreds of thousands of interactions. The company is now trying to use Sophi on its print layout. Laying out entire newspaper takes Sophi 10 seconds instead of the two hours highly skilled employees take. Sophi also predicts how valuable stories will be once they are published, evaluates if they performed as expected, and tries to identify hidden gems that could gain more traction than expected.

It took an army of data scientists years to figure out and train Sophi with the perfect scoring system. It looks beyond pageviews to assign these scores and identify hidden gems. Anything specially promoted will be popular, Edall said, but Sohpi takes bias out of the equation to identify content that sometimes surprises the editors. For example, it may pull a wire story and place it behind the paywall, which an editor would never have considered doing.

As for the future, Edall said Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley has a clear vision: “He thinks the newsroom of future is a place dedicated to finding great stories and telling those stories. When that work is done, Sophi can take those stories and showcase them for everyone to see.” 

Alma Media and machine learning

Alma Media’s Iltalehti has developed a content management system that tells its journalists how many people will read their stories before they are published. The neural network that makes the predictions is based on 50,000+ published articles, and the investment is paying off.

Italehti's CMS has mixed results in its predictive accuracy.
Italehti's CMS has mixed results in its predictive accuracy.

“Even though we have a very strong position in Finland, we always want to grow more,” Editor-in-Chief Perttu Kauppinen said. He shared the four main components of machine learning at Iltalehti.

  1. Different home pages curated for different audiences, with in-house built ML algorithm (segmentation).
  2. In-house built recommendation algorithm on article page (personalisation).
  3. ML-based UGC moderation tool. With around 300,000 comments per month, 80% are published or rejected by the machine.
  4. ML-based predictive analytics.

“About a year ago, we started to think how to incorporate AI and machine learning deeper into the workflow of our newsroom,” Kauppinen said. “We thought that machine learning could help us in various points of decision-making when it comes to planning, production, and publishing.”

For example, machine learning could help the team figure out what types of stories to write for different audiences, and when they should publish them. Iltalehti started out by building a language model based on its archives of more than 1.5 million articles, as well as Finnish Wikipedia. After that, the team tested the prediction model by showing the model more than 100,000 Iltalehti stories and told it how they had performed. It started to be able to predict how any given story would perform, and which would be hits or misses.

The team integrated this predictive tool into its Content Management System. Here’s how it’s working:

  • With the overall audience, the machine accurately predicts an article’s popularity only 44% of the time.
  • With its prime audience, women under 45, the results are slightly better at 65%.

“But since we are mostly interested in hits and total misses, at the ends of the spectrum, the predictions are actually quite good,” Kauppinen said. “And furthermore, the machine tells us how sure it is about the prediction.” For these “end of the spectrum” big hits and big misses, the predictions climb to an accuracy in the 70-90% range.

Advance Local and texting

Advance Local has been experimenting with building more intimate relationships with customers through free and paid text-message services. These services are generating high levels of engagement, providing strong leads for paid product offerings, and creating a new direct revenue stream for Advance’s newsrooms.

Advance Local's texting initiative, Subtext, has seen encouraging engagement results.
Advance Local's texting initiative, Subtext, has seen encouraging engagement results.

“Texting is a big part of how we stay in touch with each other these days,” said John Hassell, Advance Local’s senior vice president and editorial director. “It’s immediate, it’s intimate. So why haven’t more news organisations fallen in love with connecting with people this way?”

Advance Local developed and licenses a technology called Subtext to build both free and paid relationships through text messaging with the audience. The concept is simple, Hassell explained: Make it easy to text with the people you want to hear from — whether that is readers, journalists, or other stakeholders.

Some of the advantages of Subtext include:

  • Sign-up is simple. Users text the host and provide their name, phone number, and credit card (if it’s a paid account).
  • Subscribers avoid the clutter of social media and create a more intimate connection with personalities they love.
  • Subscribers enjoy the privacy (no trolls), the immediacy (no app to download), and the relevancy (no algorithms) of a personal text conversation.
  • Cancelling is easy — just text STOP.

Advance Local has seen incredible results from using Subtext, including:

  • A 92% open rate.
  • 85% are opened within the first hour.
  • 23% engagement rate.
  • Less than 1% opt-out rate.

“We are only just beginning to understand the potential of this platform,” Hassell said. “We’re excited to see what new use cases we and other publishers can develop and grow.”

The Congress continues on Tuesday with the eighth of nine modules, “Business Model Innovation and Creating New Value.” Register here for individual sessions or the entire Congress (the latter includes access to this and previous sessions).

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